No one has as much control over a team's fate as the general manager. A good one can thwart a dimwit owner, and a great one can win with a low payroll. Yet there's no reliable way to tell the good ones from the bad ones. All agree that Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox does a terrific job, and that Dayton Moore of the Kansas City Royals doesn't. The in-between is murky.
One problem is that it's hard even to tell what general managers should be judged by. Each has different goals, different resources and a different amount of control over his team, and for these reasons it's not rare for an empty suit to run a good club, or for a bright spark to run a lousy one.
Even the simplest possible criterion, winning, doesn't really work. Ruben Amaro Jr. of the Philadelphia Phillies has one pennant in one year on the job, while Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, the most celebrated executive of his generation, has none in a dozen. That doesn't tell you what you need to know about either of them.
In theory, the best way to judge general managers might be to measure their wins against their payroll -- whether you have $50 million or $150 million, you can spend it more or less prudently -- but this raises its own issues. Fourteen of the game's 30 general managers have run their team for one or two seasons. Judging them on how well they've dealt with a roster and payroll they may have had little control over isn't really fair. Also, efficiency isn't everything. No team spends more per win than the New York Yankees, but few would say that Brian Cashman is anything other than one of the best in the game at his trade.
Sadly, there isn't any good, objective way to rate general managers. Take the following rankings, then, as largely subjective and based on a few simple criteria having mostly to do with player moves and setting an overall direction for the organization, which are only a part of what a general manager actually does.
The most important is success. That doesn't necessarily mean winning, but it does mean meeting a reasonable goal, be that winning championships, cleaning up the mess your predecessor made, building a quality farm system or just putting a good team on the field with little money to spend.
After that, not doing stupid things counts most. The reason for this is that while mere uninspired time served won't destroy a team, doing actively malignant things such as making clearly ridiculous trades or signing costly, terrible free agents can ruin a team's chances for many years.
Next most important is efficiency. I'll spare you the math here, but the metric used is marginal dollars per marginal win over the last three years. (This just measures spending above the league minimum payroll of about $10 million against wins beyond the 50 or so that a roster full of sketchy reserves would run up in a year.) As noted, this isn't everything, but it's a lot.
(An underrated element is my dislike for your favorite team, which is why I ranked the guy running the shop so low when he obviously deserves to rate at least above the several fools directly above him on the list, if not even higher.)
Finally comes tenure. You'd rather have a good general manager than a bad one, but you'd also rather have an experienced good one than the opposite.
Intangibles don't really come into play here simply because they don't count. If a general manager is good at networking, respected by players and agents, esteemed as a genuinely decent person even by people who aren't related to him and good at stroking an incompetent owner, that should show up somewhere in his record. If his team is still lousy despite all his winning personal traits, they probably aren't that helpful after all.
The really impressive thing about this list is how few bad general managers there are in the game. Most of the ones who come in among the lower half are there because they just haven't had much chance to do anything good or bad yet, and even most of the lower-rated veterans would be perfectly competent stewards for most teams. Say what you will about Moneyball, but that book's most lasting influence may have been in convincing the rich people who own baseball teams to run their clubs like any other business, looking for agile thinkers rather than interpreters of the inner mysteries of what really isn't a very complicated game.
1. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay Rays
For as much praise as the Rays have received over the last few years, they've probably deserved even more. Over the last three years they've spent just a million dollars per marginal win, the sort of thing that gets baseball wonks to draw hearts around pictures of Friedman. Maybe the best example of their method is the preposterous contract to which they signed Evan Longoria during his first days as a major leaguer -- if the Rays exercise all the options in the contract, they could end up paying him less than $50 million through his age 30 season, which makes him the single most valuable commodity in baseball. Friedman has also won a pennant and maintains one of the game's best farm systems. It may seem absurd to say of a 32-year-old whom few people had heard of a year and a half ago, but he and his braintrust are the best in baseball.
2. Theo Epstein, Boston Red Sox
Among baseball's really big spenders, the Red Sox are the most efficient, or, if you prefer, the least wasteful. It's difficult to avoid roster bloat while playing even-up with the Yankees, but they've managed it. Before signing starter John Lackey this winter, they didn't have a player making more than $14 million per year, and the team is built around cheap, homegrown talent. Like the Rays, the impressive thing about the Red Sox is that they may deserve even more hype than they get.
3. Brian Cashman, New York Yankees
Cashman's weakness isn't a small one -- the Yankees, the only team in baseball to routinely run $200 million payrolls, have recently been spending about four times as much per win as the Rays. Why, then, does he rank so high? His four world championships don't hurt, but the really impressive thing is that since he secured full control over baseball operations after the 2005 season, the Yankees have spent their money wisely, signing studs like CC Sabathia rather than sure bets for decline, and traded smartly, dealing the fruits of a much-improved farm system for players still in their prime, such as Curtis Granderson.
4. Larry Beinfest, Florida Marlins
Duly noted that Michael Hill is nominally the Marlins' general manager. That said, Beinfest, technically the team's president of baseball operations, consistently gets more wins for his dollar than anyone else in baseball. Since he took over following the 2002 season, the Marlins have won a World Series and posted winning records in five of seven seasons, despite consistently ranking at or near the bottom of the majors in payroll. Beinfest has picked up players every way you can -- trading for Hanley Ramirez, acquiring Dan Uggla in the Rule 5 draft, and bringing up players from the farm -- and on the few occasions he's had money to spend, he has spent it shrewdly.
5. Jack Zduriencik, Seattle Mariners
This may seem a preposterous ranking for someone who's only been in the job for a bit more than a year, but the key thing to note about Zduriencik is that he was already one of baseball's most highly regarded minds before coming to Seattle. His run of drafts for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2000s was so good that he became the first scouting director to win Baseball America's Executive of the Year award. Since taking over the reins in Seattle, he has turned the Mariners into a contender, engineering their abrupt transformation from one of baseball's dullest organizations to one of its most progressive, such as by focusing on defensive studs such as Jack Wilson, Franklin Gutierrez and Casey Kotchman.
6. Doug Melvin, Milwaukee Brewers
There's a lingering air of unfulfilled potential about the Brewers, a sense that they took their shot two years ago when they traded for CC Sabathia and just missed (they lost in the NLDS). But Melvin made what had been perhaps baseball's blandest team relevant for the first time in decades, and he probably isn't done quite yet. Don't be surprised if he turns Prince Fielder into enough young talent to drive another serious run at a pennant.
7. Dan O'Dowd, Colorado Rockies
O'Dowd has built some thrilling teams recently, and done so on the cheap. It's been a long time since the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle debacles, and granting that he's Baseball America's reigning Executive of the Year, O'Dowd still deserves more credit than he sometimes gets. He built his team up the right way and finally solved the problem of Coors Field by overseeing the introduction of the famed humidor.
8. Jon Daniels, Texas Rangers
General managers are always going on about the virtues of building a strong farm system, and what they generally mean is that they want to win major league games so they can keep their jobs. Daniels has actually built a preposterously good system (Justin Smoak, Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland) over the last few years, bringing in talent every way you can, and now has his team positioned to contend for the next several years. That he has kept the major league team perfectly respectable on modest payrolls while overseeing this rebuilding project is really very impressive, and with a good run over the next couple of years he could well move up on this list.
9. Ken Williams, Chicago White Sox
For someone regarded even by many of his own team's fans as somewhere between daft and clueless, Williams certainly has a habit of making killer trades, identifying undervalued players and putting together winning ballclubs. His basic philosophy of running out an 85-win team every year in the expectation that in its better years it will be a serious pennant contender is a bit strange for a big city team in a small-town division, but he has a World Series ring and several division flags that say it works.
10. Billy Beane, Oakland A's
Beane really seems to have been at least matched at his own game by a generation of younger general managers who learned, to some extent, from his example. He's still a fine and creative executive, and you have to wonder what he would do in a town like New York or Chicago, but he'll have to invent some new tricks to reclaim the title of the man who does most with the least. He could justifiably be ranked higher, but considering that his team has lost at least 86 games in each of the last three years, he could also be justifiably ranked lower.
11. Josh Byrnes, Arizona Diamondbacks
I'm not quite sure if the Diamondbacks are a team whose young players haven't developed as well as they should or an extremely young team that just hasn't come all the way together yet, not that these are mutually exclusive possibilities. Either way, Byrnes has done an admirable job collecting young talent and patiently letting it develop. The odd questionable move like trading away Carlos Quentin has been more than balanced out by savvy moves such as trading for Dan Haren. There's a championship team somewhere in this collection of talent.
12. Andy MacPhail, Baltimore Orioles
He's baseball royalty and a possible future commissioner who has built first-rate clubs in Minnesota and Chicago, so the surprise of MacPhail's work in Baltimore is that he's there at all, given the Orioles' notoriously headache-inducing ownership. It's not a surprise that he's doing the job the right way. This is a lousy team, but that's because under MacPhail's stewardship they're actually rebuilding properly rather than burning money in a futile bid for 80 wins. In any other division they'd be a comer.
13. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers
Dombrowski hasn't had the best run lately between a string of dubious trades involving players like Jair Jurrjens and Curtis Granderson and the equally dubious contracts given players like Gary Sheffield and Dontrelle Willis. That said, you have to respect his incredible resume. He built the outstanding Montreal Expos clubs of the early 1990s, won a world championship in Miami and a pennant with a Tigers team that just three years before was arguably the worst team of all time, and he probably has still more success ahead of him.
14. Walt Jocketty, Cincinnati Reds
You could certainly make an argument that Jocketty should rate higher given his great success with the St. Louis Cardinals, the best team in the National League last decade. Given how much of that success came down to Albert Pujols' reign of terror, the presence of all-time great manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan's ability to nurse terrific performances out of incredibly sketchy pitching talent, though, there's only so much credit to go around.
15. Tony Reagins, Los Angeles Angels
It's hard to get Reagins much higher than this given that he has a tenure of only two years and that he can be given only so much credit for not immediately ruining one of the most consistently successful teams in baseball. Still, he has done an awful lot right, such as signing Bobby Abreu for a pittance last year and trading for players like Mark Teixeira and Scott Kazmir. Perhaps as impressive is what he hasn't done: This winter, for instance, he declined to overpay for homegrown ace John Lackey and beloved leadoff man Chone Figgins. As fits the Angels, he isn't flashy, but he has impressed so far.
16. Jim Hendry, Chicago Cubs
It's tempting to overreact to a lousy 2009 and to heavily count bad contracts doled out to players such as Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley against Hendry, but the truth is that he built a consistently successful team that had every chance to win a World Series at its peak and just didn't, through no real fault of his. The Cubs are now likely in for a hangover as the core of that team ages, but given the team's history he was right to go for it all.
17. Frank Wren, Atlanta Braves
Swiping Jair Jurrjens for Edgar Renteria's remnants sure was a nice deal, getting rid of inexplicably adored outfielder Jeff Francoeur took some guts, and Wren has generally done a good job of keeping the Braves respectable in his two years on the job. He has a slight tendency toward making a fetish of veterans like Garret Anderson, but also shows signs of being a man on the make.
18. John Mozeliak, St. Louis Cardinals
As is true of Jocketty, it's a bit hard to know just how much credit to give Mozeliak for the Cardinals' success, given how predicated it is on the unique talents of the coaching staff and the presence of perhaps the best right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby. Ultimately his reputation will probably rise or sink on how wise the team's $120 million investment in Matt Holliday proves to be -- it's not at all the sort of decision a general manager makes alone, but it's one he gets the credit or blame for.
19. Ruben Amaro Jr., Philadelphia Phillies
I honestly have no idea how to rate Amaro. One pennant in one year is a nice record, and having landed two of baseball's five best pitchers -- Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee -- in trade within a few months is even better given that these were moves he alone gets credit for. On the other hand the truly strange trade sending Lee to Seattle and the odd, if so far successful, decision to sign 37-year-old designated hitter-masquerading-as-an-outfielder Raul Ibanez to a long-term contract have to count heavily against him.
20. Neal Huntington, Pittsburgh Pirates
There's something to be said for aggressively trying to clean up a disaster. The Pirates have gone longer without winning than any team ever has, and while they won't turn that around any time soon, Huntington's program of getting rid of any veteran of any value in exchange for whatever young talent he can get is absolutely the right one.
21. Bill Smith, Minnesota Twins
A bit more than two years since he took over the Twins, Smith has an ambiguous record. He had an excellent winter, filling the team's major holes on the cheap, and the team has been good. On the other hand he got an unimpressive haul for Johan Santana, and his trade of Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young looks to have been a colossal botch. That he rates this low shouldn't be taken as a slight, as there's very little difference between No. 17 and No. 21.
22. Mark Shapiro, Cleveland Indians
Where Shapiro rates is irrelevant, as he'll be promoted up out of the general manager's position after this season, but he has to be the most overrated executive of the last few years. His Indians were widely praised as one of the best-run clubs in baseball for years, but despite immense reservoirs of talent they've had two winning seasons in his eight years at the helm, ultimately playing as less than the sum of their parts. No matter how admirable the team's process and structure are, the results just haven't been there.
23. Mike Rizzo, Washington Nationals
It's far too early to rate Rizzo fairly, as he took over last season amidst an epic meltdown, but he hasn't done anything to hurt the team and made a few nice minor moves this winter, such as snaring pitcher Jason Marquis. He rates above the next two men by a hair on the principle of seniority.
24. Alex Anthopolous, Toronto Blue Jays
Anthopolous hasn't presided over a single game yet, but he adroitly ended the Roy Halladay circus, promised greater investments in scouting and development, and hired quant guru Tom Tango as a consultant, all positive moves. He'll have to be more than brilliant to do anything in a division where 95 wins might not be enough to make the playoffs, but even if he isn't he still might well build an interesting team.
25. Jed Hoyer, San Diego Padres
A former Red Sox capo, Hoyer comes into his new job with all the potential in the world. How he handles a potential trade of star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez will be the first test of how well he'll fulfill it.
26. Omar Minaya, New York Mets
Here we start moving into the territory of those few general managers who might be said to actively harm their team's chances. In the right situation, Minaya could be an extremely successful general manager. He has a great eye for talent and a knack both for picking up unappreciated players in trade and for nailing the big move. He is not in the right situation, and a team that should be dominating the National League is essentially imploding on his watch. At least some of the blame goes to the team's organizational structure, but so far, as a great deal of a general manager's job is, well, managing, Minaya has to take a lot of the blame for that.
26. Ned Colletti, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have done well under Colletti, but that seems to have been to some extent despite him, given bizarre moves like his signings of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones and his trade of catching prospect Carlos Santana for fill-in third baseman Casey Blake. You only get so much credit for not trading the likes of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw for fourth outfielders.
27. Brian Sabean, San Francisco Giants
Sabean's skeptics were driven insane for years as no matter how many terrible, decrepit players he signed to absurd contracts, he always had Barry Bonds to make everything right. Once Bonds retired, the Giants immediately fell apart, and the skeptics gloated. Now they're a decent team again because they've developed a pair of aces in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. It doesn't matter; the skeptics are still right.
29. Ed Wade, Houston Astros
Did you realize that six of eight Astros regulars were 33 or older last year? That five of the six pitchers who got the most starts -- two of whom were Brian Moehler and Mike Hampton -- were 30 or older? And that the team has arguably the worst farm system in baseball? Wade isn't to blame for all of this. But he certainly hasn't done anything about it.
30. Dayton Moore, Kansas City Royals
A question to ponder: If Moore were a performance artist, what exactly would he have done differently over the past several years? Another: If Moore were a performance artist, how many prizes would such works as "The Acquisition of Yuniesky Betancourt" and "Here, Jose Guillen, Take This Money" win?